Folly of the Cross (Artful Devotion)

Alexamenos graffito
Graffito with a parody of the Crucifixion, scratched in plaster on the wall of the Domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill, Rome, ca. 200. Collection of the Museo Palatino, Rome.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

—1 Corinthians 1:18–25

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SONG: “The Old Rugged Cross” | Words and music by George Bennard, 1913 | Performed by Angie Sutherland and Edgar Napier, 2019

In this recording from last year, Angie Sutherland sings “The Old Rugged Cross” with her father on their front porch in West Virginia, a favorite pastime. A few months later, on August 25, he died of cancer.

The classic hymn reflects on the paradox of the cross that Paul teases out in this week’s epistle reading: it’s both ugly and beautiful, both shameful and glorious. George Bennard, the songwriter, describes it as “the emblem of suffering and shame,” “so despised by the world,” “reproach[ful]” (disgraceful, discrediting). And yet for the Christian it “has a wondrous attraction,” “a wondrous beauty,” rough and blood-stained though it is, because the sacrifice of Christ that took place there brings about the world’s salvation. And so we love it, cherish it, cling to it, as the greatest gift and our only hope, though the world may laugh.

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The paradoxical nature of the Crucifixion makes it especially challenging for artists to represent visually. How do you show something that is utterly degrading and an apparent defeat but that is actually a cosmic victory, an act of self-giving worthy of praise? Artistic renderings are often accused of being either too sanitized or too gory.

The subject of Christ’s crucifixion is rare in early Christian art, entirely absent from the catacombs and sarcophagi in Rome, and, despite its centrality in preaching and the textual theology of the church fathers, doesn’t become common until the Byzantine period—and even then it is the cross’s victory that is shown, at the expense of its shamefulness. This rejection of Crucifixion images wasn’t an issue of depicting God the Son, as he showed up in other scenes early on—feeding at his mother’s breast, talking to the woman at the well, healing the hemorrhaging woman, raising Lazarus from the dead, enthroned in heaven, and even during other stages of his passion. The rarity of the crucified Christ in art of the first several centuries of the Common Era has puzzled art historians and theologians alike, who can only speculate that the shame associated with crucifixion as a form of execution and the stigma thus attached to worshiping a crucified deity are behind it.

Alexamenos graffito tracing
Stone rubbing trace of the Alexamenos graffito, published in “Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries” by Rodolfo Lanciani (1898)

For the primary image of this Artful Devotion, I’ve taken a different tack and am featuring an anti-Christian image, a historical artifact from ca. 200 Rome that shows just how shameful crucifixion was. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . . a stumbling block . . .” It’s a graffito that was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the ruins of a paedagogium, a boarding school for imperial page boys, on the Palatine Hill, within the emperors’ palace complex. (The school had been walled up sometime in the third century to support constructions above it.) Richard Viladesau describes the image in his book The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance:

In an unfrequented corner of the Palatine museum in Rome there is a collection of ancient graffiti. Most visitors give them no more than a glance before passing on to the more attractive statues and artifacts. Roughly etched on slabs of marble, these inscriptions once defaced the walls of the imperial palaces that stood on the spot. Among them is one from the residence of the imperial pages called the graffito of Alexamenos. It consists of a very roughly drawn image and a few words of Greek. In style and appearance it has nothing to distinguish it from the many other similar pieces of graffiti that abound in Roman museums; but for the Christian it has a particular significance. The rough incision shows a crucified man with the head of an ass. Next to him is a smaller figure with an arm extended in his direction. Nearby are the crudely carved words ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ, “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” It is the earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Christ and of his adoration as divine. In a city so full of the triumphant monuments of Christianity, there is something strangely moving in finding this first visual testimony to the Christian faith amidst the fragments of daily life of pagan Rome; and even more so in finding it in this rude sketch, probably drawn by a palace page with cruel schoolboy humor to mock the faith of a fellow slave.

The graffito reminds us of how Christianity must have appeared to the sophisticated ancient pagan world: a strange minority religion from a small backwater of the civilized world: a religion that was centered on a man punished as a criminal with the most humiliating form of execution, and a faith practiced mostly by slaves and people of the lower classes. It reflects the Roman belief that the Jews worshipped a god with the head of an ass—a notion that was apparently also carried over to Christians. It also shows graphically the scandal of the cross to which St. Paul refers. For sophisticated Hellenistic society, the notion of a suffering god was ridiculous: an obviously mythological conception. For the adherents of popular religion, Jewish or gentile, the notion of a savior who was himself defeated by the powers of evil was equally absurd.

How did the cross, the symbol of degradation, an occasion for mockery, become the primary symbol of Christian faith? (19–20)

(That concluding question is precisely what Viladesau explores in the rest of the book, one in a series!)

For further reading, see

See also “The Crucifixion of Christ in Art,” a lecture given by the Rt. Revd. Lord Richard Harries at Gresham College on January 12, 2011. (He discusses the Alexamenos graffito briefly, starting at 9:50.)

As a juxtaposition to that anonymous Roman bully’s scrawl, consider the splendidly jeweled, gold repoussé cover of a Carolingian Gospel book from the court school of Charles the Bald, known as the Lindau Gospels. (It came quite a bit later, in the ninth century.) It majors on the “glory” side of Paul’s equation, even though the peripheral figures are shown in mourning.

Crucifixion (Lindau Gospels)
Front cover of the Lindau Gospels, made in France, ca. 870–80. Gold repoussé, 35 × 27.5 cm. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

I wonder what part of the story we lose with this beautiful, gleaming, physically strong Christ erect on his cross. And on the converse, with Crucifixion images that focus heavily on suffering, humiliation, showing a Christ who’s beaten, bloody, forsaken, and crying out in agony. Is it possible to convey both aspects of the Crucifixion—the shame and the glory, the pain and transcendence—simultaneously? Can you name any artists who have done so successfully? (I have some thoughts, but I want to hear yours!) Or do we need a plenitude of Crucifixion images to hold one another in check and to help us more fully abide in the multifaceted mystery that is the death of Christ? Or, whether the Crucifixion image is, at face value, repellent or attractive, is that irrelevant—does the Christian viewer simply bring his or her theology to the image, reading into an ugly Crucifixion the beautiful redemption wrought by such a sacrifice, or into a beautiful Crucifixion the ugliness of humanity’s depravity that led to such (implicit) suffering?


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

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